Thad Ziolkowski Surfs the Midwest
PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO.
Thad Ziolkowski is blond, lean, and I imagine he writes with a surfboard not far from his desk in his New York apartment. In 2003, Ziolkowskireleased On a Wave, a memoir documenting the return to his firstlove—surfing—years after abandoning the sport of his early teenage years in Florida for the writer’s life in the city.
In tone and description, Ziolkowski perfected the surf memoir (he may have also founded it)—so much so that readers of On a Wave might do a double take when they see the cover of his first novel in bookstores this week published by Europa editions. The unmistakable spiral of a tornado rises above the title Wichita. That’s a long, long way from Melbourne Beach, Florida.
It takes certain artistic bravery to leave the ocean for the American Midwest, but that’s exactly what Ziolkowski has done. The novel follows a young recent Columbia graduate, Lewis Chopik, who, instead of following his father’s footsteps through academia, returns to his New Age mother in the landlocked state of Kansas. There Lewis embarks upon a domestic picaresque, dealing with, among other things: his mother’s involvement in a women’s luncheon Ponzi scheme; the opening of a storm-chasing business that promises to take customers up close to the area’s famous tornadoes; two suitors vying with different degrees of lucidity for his mother’s affections; and most heartbreaking of all, a younger brother, Seth, who is losing himself ever deeper in a psychological vortex.
Ziolkowski’s humor and trenchant observations make for startlingly gorgeous (and often hilarious) prose even in the midst of emergencies. Here is Lewis after he snorts a bump of meth alongside his brother while touring the suburban flats of Wichita: “He feels like a well-rested duke on a tour of his ancestral estates, which happen to include an Arbie’s, a Dave’s Fitness Center and the corporate headquarters of Pizza Hut.” We met over lunch to discuss Wichita and getting far away from surfer’s paradise.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: I can’t be sure, but I think this might be the first novel to mention an essay by art critic Rosalind Krauss. The title of that essay is “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” It’s basically about earth or land works—art that can no longer be described merely as “sculptures.” It is mentioned in an entirely different chapter than the one where you take us up close to the tornado. But it got me thinking about the tornado in your book. I wondered if there is a connection between the tornado and Krauss’s essay.
THAD ZIOLKOWSKI: That’s interesting. I think if there is a specific connection to the tornado in my book, it’s unconscious or intuitive. But that essay is amazing. She’s a brilliant writer. I’ve always found her sexy as an art writer. And I’ve always found the title of that essay really suggestive. That was the extent of it. I once sat in on a lecture she gave at Columbia. I was working on a dissertation—William Carlos Williams and the readymade—and that led me to Krauss.
BOLLEN: Well, it got me thinking about how the essay’s proposition related to a tornado. Could a natural disaster be a work of art? Does it enter a zone that isn’t architecture or decoration or sculpture but it is a thing of power and beauty and form… I’ll stop there before I embarrass myself. Back to the novel. I remember you telling me that Wichita originally started out as something of a memoir.
ZIOLKOWSKI: Well, the novel was too memoir-esque and it had to be radically revised. I put it aside for a few years and then when I picked it back up, I shifted the setting. It wasn’t always in Wichita. It was in a number of places. It was in too many places. I moved around too much for my own technical abilities. I also reduced characters and moved it temporally to make it more in the 2000s. That way I suddenly had cell phones to play with and emails and other devices that I thought were cool in terms of narrative—devices that became part of the plot in things like The Sopranos. I liked what I was seeing in the recent techniques for narrative. That helped inspire me to change the time frame.
BOLLEN: Do you find it helpful when writing to base your fiction on some personal premise, whether it be characters or a setting or an experience you once had?
ZIOLKOWSKI: It helps me feel grounded in an emotional reality, yes. From a writer’s standpoint, I don’t have an interest in fiction that is wildly unrelated to me and my life. I don’t think I have a sense of confidence and authority in it. And since I started in memoir, it took me longer than I expected to write novelistically—to write composite characters and exploit the possibilities that the novel provides. I was writing more memoirishly than I realized. When I was 23, I thought fiction was the superior form—someone like Pynchon was the gold standard of fiction because it was so far removed from his own life. Since then, I’ve completely changed my ideals of fiction. Probably because of my own limits as a writer, but also just because of changes in what I value, and maybe also because of the rise of the memoir since I was 23.
BOLLEN: When did you live in Wichita?
ZIOLKOWSKI: I lived there in the mid-’70s, when I was a teenager. I didn’t live there long—for a year and a half, but I went back there to be with my mother who did stay there through the ’80s. I would go back almost every year.
BOLLEN: Did you like the town?
ZIOLKOWSKI: I didn’t dislike it. Once I got over the difference between it and beach culture, I had a fondness for it. It has this beauty, the plains beauty. And the people, in a very generalizing way, have that kind of unpretentious straightforwardness of the Midwest that I like and admire.
BOLLEN: I grew up in Ohio, which is on the fringe of the real tornado heartland. I’ve found that when you grow up with one natural disaster, you tend to be far more frightened of all the others. For instance, I understand what a tornado does so I’m not bothered by it. But the idea of an earthquake scares the hell out of me. I’m sure for people in California, a tornado is utter horror. Were you seduced or mesmerized by the idea of a tornado when you were in Wichita? Or frightened by them?
ZIOLKOWSKI: I think being a surfer, I was always sensitized to natural beauty. Tornadoes, in a way, have a very wavelike form. In surfing, when you get a really good wave and it’s tubular, it is tornadic. When you see really clear water breaking on a reef, it looks like a tornado. So there’s probably some structural resonance to the form for me. But also, in the ’90s, there were these underground tornado videos—before the Internet—and I would buy them. It was people with eyewitness video cameras tracking one tornado after another. Some of them were a lot like surf films—here’s another wave, here’s another tornado.
BOLLEN: So those eyewitnesses were similar to the storm chasers in your book?
ZIOLKOWSKI: Some of them weren’t storm chasers. It was just a guy a minute before ducking into his cellar, taking a shot of the tornado with his wife pulling on his arm, going, “Come On! Leave!” But there would be a hypnotic quality to them.
BOLLEN: Tornados are hypnotic. They’re like cobras. Have you ever seen one?
ZIOLKOWSKI: No, I never saw one when I was living there. But they would have tornado warnings a lot in school, and we would all be hustled into this enormous auditorium, and there were sirens going off, teachers looking afraid, everyone looking afraid. It was a real phenomenon.
BOLLEN: We would go down in the basement for drills and crouch in a ball while the nuns walked around. But I’m a fan of extreme weather in general. So for me it made sense that this mother would open a business where she followed storms, thinking it a sort of safari into the power of nature.
ZIOLKOWSKI: Right, and I think in that family there’s a sort of longing to be in awe—an attraction to God’s providence. Like the French term “force majeure.” What is the insurance term? “An act of God.”
BOLLEN: The tornado is a foil for the troubled younger brother—destructive and unstoppable.
ZIOLKOWSKI: Yes, it’s a doppelganger for him. For manic depression, bi-polarity…
BOLLEN: The main character has a father who is very academic and a mother who is a hippie and very much of the earth. Two different pulls. I wondered if that might have been taken from your own family?
ZIOLKOWSKI: Yeah, that’s two parts of my real family. I have a deep attraction to the world of the mind, in almost a priestly way, but then an attraction to the life of the body and surfing and the priestliness of that, which has its own purity.
BOLLEN: I love the simplicity of the name Wichita. How did you settle on that?
ZIOLKOWSKI: One thing I discovered was that the origin of the name is Native American and the word has something to do with face tattoos.
BOLLEN: And the younger brother has a tattoo on his face.
ZIOLKOWSKI: The tattoos in the book are really important. I didn’t know about that translation until much later, until after the book was edited. The funny thing is that Europa Editions is owned by an Italian publishing company and they’re doing an Italian edition, but the name Wichita doesn’t really resonate in Italy, not even the way Oklahoma would—which is also an Indian word. Most states names in America are Native American. So in Italy they are calling it “Tempeste”—Storms.
BOLLEN: People don’t realize how important titles are to a book—and how they are so often changed last minute from what the author initially had in mind. You can be writing toward one title and then it gets switched just before print.
ZIOLKOWSKI: My memoir was, for the longest time, going to be named after McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood. I thought it would be funny. It turns out no one except for me thought it was funny for it to be called Memories of a Surfer Boyhood. No one else seemed to remember that McCarthy book. Then I was without a title for a long time. My wife actually came up with On a Wave.
BOLLEN: I was impressed with your handling of the younger brother, Seth. Usually when someone writes about a teenage delinquent, my hackles go up because they are all brooding, tough stereotype with a lot of slang thrown in. But you handled him sensitively—he’s hard to read but also hard not to like in some way. Was he a difficult character to create?
ZIOLKOWSKI: He was easy. He was very vivid and I felt like I had a lot of fun writing the dialogue around him because he was so clearly drawn in mind that I felt like it wrote itself. The brother and the mother are very closely based on my mother and brother. So they’re very larger than life in the way, as people. That’s kind of a gift for a writer. You’re just kind of watching and you get down the characteristics and the mannerisms. Then you can create a situation in which you can set them loose, if they’re clear in your mind.
BOLLEN: Has your mother read this book?
ZIOLKOWSKI: She read it and was delighted. She’s very sophisticated, I’m lucky. My mother just gobbled it up. I couldn’t be happier with her reaction.
BOLLEN: I assume when you named the book Wichita you knew that Wichitans—Wichitinians?
BOLLEN: Wichitans would feverishly read it for any errors about their good city.
ZIOLKOWSKI: There’s already a bookseller who liked the novel but was annoyed by a couple inaccuracies that I didn’t get right. There’s no CVS in Wichita, there’s no Whole Foods.
BOLLEN: Well, there will be in a few years.
ZIOLKOWSKI: Exactly. But I didn’t say the character went into Whole Foods. There’s a reference to Whole Foods that she found insinuating that there was a Whole Foods, but technically I didn’t say it was in Wichita. I did, for sure, say there was a CVS. The thing that really galled her, and I think that she got slightly wrong, was that she thought people in Wichita did know who Horace Mann was. But I didn’t write that they didn’t. I mentioned that they wouldn’t know the private school in New York, Horace Mann. And I’ll wager a thousand dollars if you went and asked someone on the street, 99 out of 100 people in Wichita would say I don’t know to “What is Horace Mann in New York City?”
BOLLEN: She just wants the world to know that Midwesterners aren’t morons. I wanted to ask you about surfing. There is a stereotype that surfers are morons, but maybe your memoir showed that they aren’t. Did the surf community embrace that book?
ZIOLKOWSKI: There’s a deeply ingrained reflex in the non-surfing populace to sneer at surfers. But surprisingly I think the most gratifying reaction has been from non-surfers, who had no interest. The surfers, unfortunately, don’t read that much. A lot of surfers who would like it, never even opened it. But there are exceptions. There wasn’t even much reviewing of the memoir in the surf press. They’re not so book oriented. They’re oriented towards videos and film. And if they’re oriented towards a book, it’s a big coffee table photo-based book. It’s a very visual culture.
BOLLEN: Do you surf here in New York? Do you go out to Montauk?
ZIOLKOWSKI: I adore Montauk. In fact, I’m setting my next novel in Montauk. Kind of my life, if I hadn’t broken with surfing as a teen—basically if I had gone to the North Shore instead of to Kansas at 15, what my life would have been like.
BOLLEN: Was that a possible outcome?
ZIOLKOWSKI: Yeah. I was 15, but I was a grown-up 15. I just couldn’t quite pull the trigger on that. So I’m working out the consequences of that alternate reality.
BOLLEN: Are there people in Montauk where you can pinpoint that pulled that trigger?
ZIOLKOWSKI: There are a lot of hardcore surfers there. There are a lot of people from my neck of the woods in Florida who went to Hawaii and never looked back. There are a lot of those. I interviewed one of them, when I was in Hawaii in December. It’s been exciting to enter that possible path. I fell in love with Montauk in ’03 when I first went there. The first time I went there was some of the best surf I ever had on the East Coast. It was late September, and it was just like Hawaii.
WICHITA IS OUT NOW. CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN’S FIRST NOVEL, LIGHTNING PEOPLE, CAME OUT IN 2011. HE IS THE EDITOR AT LARGE AT INTERVIEW.